Recent Court Order On Google Related To Protecting Information Rights

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appeals court orders Google to disclose to Korean users what personal information
Google passed to U.S. government.

A Korean appellate court has
ordered Google Korea along with its U.S. parent Google Inc. (together, “Google”)
to disclose to users of the Google search service, when they so request, the scope
and status of the users’ personal information (including search records) that Google
has provided to the U.S. government. The decision of the Seoul High Court,
handed down in February (released in March) 2017, concluded that, notwithstanding
the choice of California law in the terms of service, Google’s use and handling
of information was subject to rights of the local users under Korean law, mandating disclosure to them
of what was passed to third parties including the U.S. authorities – except to
the extent the disclosure is prohibited under U.S. law.

The appellate decision, now on
appeal by Google to the Korean Supreme Court, centered on user rights under the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization
and Information Protection (“IT Network Act”) of Korea. A key data privacy statute
of Korea, the IT Network Act provides that, if “IT service providers”
(including any business of supplying information by telecom or online in Korea)
pass personal information to third parties, they must, upon the user’s request,
disclose the identities of those third parties, the scope of that information
and the purpose of passing it, and details such as the time it is passed. Identifying
Google Inc. along with Google Korea as IT service providers, the Korean plaintiffs
filed this action in 2014, prompted by the Edward Snowden revelation that Google-stored
information had gone to intelligence agencies in the U.S. The lower court in
Korea had already, in 2015, ruled for plaintiffs as against Google Inc., but
excluded Google Korea. The influential appellate court now includes Google
Korea in its disclosure order.

As recounted in the
judgment, Google’s argument is that it is not subject to the Korean law
requirements under the IT Network Act, in relation to the service, because its stated
terms provide for California governing law, as well as exclusive jurisdiction
of California courts. The appeals court, however, like the lower court,
reasoned that the clause did not validly subject users, being ordinary
consumers, to California law exclusively.

Rather, the court said, the user’s right to disclosure under the IT Networks Act, concerning information
passed to third parties, is a mandatory rule,
for the protection of consumers, and as such it applies notwithstanding an
ostensible agreement to the contrary. Thus, the users are entitled to have these IT
service providers disclose what information they passed to third parties,
including U.S. government agencies. To the extent such a disclosure is prohibited under U.S. law, however, that
is, thankfully, a “reasonable” basis for withholding disclosure, an exception
to the requirement.

As to Google Korea, the lower court (Seoul Central
District) had accepted the argument that Google Inc., not Google Korea, was the
service provider, and thus Google Korea was not subject to the disclosure
obligation, but the appellate court disagreed. Google Korea, the High Court
said, was certainly an “IT service provider” in the relevant way, owning the “”
domain and processing users’ search requests as part of the Google search
service. The appellate court thus encompassed Google Korea in its order.

While the plaintiffs had also
sought damages, evidently couched as compensation for psychological injury, the
appellate court as well as the lower court rejected that claim, finding no such

The court decision
underscores the need for companies offering telecom or online services in Korea
to be wary – including when it comes to their offshore handling of information –
of restrictions and duties under the IT Network Act, as well as other Korean
data privacy regulations governing personal and location information. While the
decision awaits Supreme Court review, for now it should be assumed that Korean
consumer-protective data privacy rules may apply regardless of an exclusive
governing law clause to the contrary. Moreover, the judgment is a reminder for
multinationals that their local subsidiary or branch may be “on the hook” for
compliance obligations (and susceptible to enforcement action), notwithstanding
that the main service is operated by an offshore parent or affiliate.

At the same time, the
decision leaves some large questions unanswered. The court gave no special
attention to the precise contours of the disclosure required of Google. Presumably
that need not include a comprehensive log of all the user’s information that Google furnished to the U.S.
government, and every detail of that activity. But the minimum scope is

case also invites the question of
what standard, if any, should limit the reach of these rules to offshore
operators Google Inc. was treated as subject to the
IT Network Act restrictions despite having itself, as distinct from its
subsidiary, no noted presence in Korea. Left open is the possibility that the
rule might apply to any offshore any Korean user information, although enforcement
would be another question.

Part of the ruling is
that disclosures by Google are not required insofar as they are barred under U.S. law. While that may be
logical, it implies further issues. One might question, for instance, what sort of proof would establish
that Google is prevented from disclosing what it knows, and whether that proof might
not itself implicate U.S. national security concerns. Other questions include
whether a Korean court should expect Google to take active steps, and if so, to
what lengths, to seek U.S. government clearance for a disclosure.

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